Lawmakers start hearings on Common Core standards

New assessments are supposed to replace MEAP test and Michigan Merit Exam

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan must continue putting in place more rigorous, uniform math and reading standards adopted by 44 other states or risk sending more unprepared students to college and the workforce, education experts told lawmakers Tuesday.

A House subcommittee took testimony during the first of several summer hearings to revisit the state education board’s 3-year-old decision to adopt national “Common Core” benchmarks.

The new K-12 standards demand critical thinking and problem solving that supporters say will help move Michigan away from “mile wide, inch deep” teaching. But some Republicans who see the yardsticks as an intrusion into local control of public schools successfully blocked state funding for the Common Core initiative in the budget that starts Oct. 1.

The GOP-led Legislature has to act before then if Michigan is to keep implementing the standards along with companion “Smarter Balanced” tests.

The new assessments are supposed to replace the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test and Michigan Merit Exam in the 2014-15 school year. The computerized tests give results quicker to guide teachers and go beyond multiple-choice questions to gauge analytical skills and real-world problem solving.

“Students are told they are proficient when they are not really prepared for what comes next,” said Michael Cohen, president of Washington-based nonprofit Achieve, which is dedicated to strengthening academic standards nationwide.

He outlined the history of how governors and state school superintendents came to pursue a common set of benchmarks. The problem, Cohen said, is each state has its own standards with similar shortcomings — too many topics being taught on a superficial level compared with high-performing countries such as Japan, South Korea and Finland, where students have more time to command core concepts.

The goal of Common Core is to have focused, internationally benchmarked standards with more logical grade-to-grade learning so American students keep pace in a global economy, he said.

Legislators — some skeptical — asked many questions of Cohen and state Department of Education administrators over the 2 1/2-hour hearing that at one point became heated. The chairman, Rep. Tim Kelly of Saginaw Township, cut off some inquiries from Republican Rep. Tom McMillin, a critic of the standards who pushed to put them on hold during the budget-writing process.

McMillin, of Rochester Hills, questioned if there’s an overemphasis on testing and teaching to tests and wanted to know if the public will be able to attend meetings in the future if standards are changed. He also was concerned that some of the teaching methods might be confusing for students.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said more than 250 public comments were considered before the Common Core benchmarks were adopted by the state education board. The bipartisan elected board acted unanimously three months after draft standards were released, according to minutes of a June 2010 meeting.

“An enormous amount of money has been spent in three years,” Flanagan said in response to a Democrat’s question on how much could be wasted if Michigan pulls back from the standards.

Common Core standards have divided Republicans, with Gov. Rick Snyder and the business community backing them and other conservatives opposing them. Republican Rep. Dave Pagel of Berrien Springs said some of his constituents “violently” oppose the standards and people he typically respects suspect Common Core is a plot by the United Nations to control children.

While the federal government wasn’t involved in developing the standards, it has provided $350 million to two consortiums developing Common Core tests. The U.S. government also encouraged states to adopt the standards to compete for “Race to the Top” grants and seek waivers around some unpopular proficiency requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The GOP-controlled subcommittee is expected to make a recommendation to the Legislature before October.